(Warning… there are spoilers for this 90-year-old movie ahead.) This film had everything going against it as I went into it. Despite the fact I’m currently making a short one, I’m no connoisseur of silent films. Outside The Artist, I mostly enjoy Chaplin from what I’ve seen so far. Everything else has been hit or miss. I’ve seen one other Fritz Lang film at this point–M–and wasn’t particularly blown away by it. I’ve seen the anime film that was somewhat supposedly based on this, and I didn’t care for that, either. And as I watched the restored version (which I’ll talk about shortly), this film was about 2 and a half hours long. A 2.5-hour silent film did not sound like it boded well for a guy with ADD. Yet, as a so-called film buff, not to mention a fan of science fiction, I feel obligated to watch this–and what a better way to finally get around to it than with this new feature?
A little history before we get into things… for those who aren’t aware, when this film was originally released, the production company overseeing it felt that not only was it too long, but it also had some questionable themes, so they hired an American screenwriter to re-write the film using its pre-existing footage to shorten it down and take out the questionable religious and political themes as much as possible. The film itself actually became a favorite of Adolf Hitler, and Fritz Lang’s own wife supported the Nazi party and soon joined, leading to Lang’s divorcing her and flee to America (Lang was Jewish), despite Hitler actually giving him a pass due to his love of the film. Lang claimed his own distaste for the film, saying it turned out sillier than he anticipated; he wasn’t alone in this thought, either, as acclaimed Sci-Fi novelist H.G. Wells was quoted as calling it “quite the silliest film.” The edited footage soon became lost and destroyed, and for years many figured the world would never see the full, original cut. Over the years there have been many recuts and re-scores of the film, but in 2008, some of the lost footage was found in Buenos Aires. It was restored to the best of its abilities and premiered into the version I just watched in 2010, roughly 90 years after the film was originally made.
For those who aren’t aware of what the film is actually about, it takes place in the year 2026 in a dystopian future where the wealthy live in more of a paradise above ground, while the workers who keep the machines that run the city going live below ground. The city Metropolis (which did indeed inspire the name of the Superman city) was created and is run by a man named Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). But his son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich)–does that make him Freder Fredersen? Poor guy–becomes enamored with a woman from below named Maria (Brigitte Helm) shows the workers’ children the city above. He ventures down below and is frazzled when he witnesses one of the machines explode and injure a lot of the workers. He brings this to the attention of his father, who is upset that another man named Josaphat (Theodor Loos) didn’t inform him first, and quickly fires him. Freder teams up with Josaphat to look into the city below, and Freder meets another man named Georgy (Erwin Biswanger), who he switches lives with momentarily. But Joh doesn’t like his son hanging around in the city below, so he hires the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to keep an eye on him; meanwhile, Joh hears of some secret plan going on below and goes to visit Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a mad scientist who used to be in love with Joh’s late wife, Hel. Rotwang has build a robot that he can have take the shape of any person he wants… and this might come into handy as they all soon discover, while following Freder, that Maria is the head of a type of revolution to bring peace between the two classes, something Joh doesn’t want, needing his superiority. (And if you think I just spoiled the whole movie, what I just told you is barely the first hour… all setup for the bulk of the story.)
Now let’s finally get into what I felt about this thing. Well, it left me constantly conflicted. Almost every aspect of the characters or the story or themes shared positives and negatives that I just couldn’t get around. Let’s look at the religion first. This film is heavy in its ties to religion. From character names, motivations, imagery, and even straight-up stories from the Bible. The most prominent, of course, being things from the Book of Revelation (such as the Whore of Babylon), as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. And this is one thing that really bugged me. I consider myself somewhat of a theologist. I know quite a bit when it comes down to it, and I do tend to like when films take religious twists. But for a film that was so heavily involved with Biblical connections, couldn’t they have at least gotten the story of the the Tower of Babel right? I mean, it’s literally at the core of this movie’s story, but they altered it so that it would better fit what they wanted. And that really bugged me. Especially in juxtaposition with all the other religious ties, something about that just didn’t gel well with me.
I also had a hard time figuring out who I was supposed to be rooting for. I mean, I know it was supposed to be Freder, but in the end, I was almost more rooting for Rotwang (again name-wise, what a poor guy…). He was such a tragic character. It doesn’t come out and tell you, but it’s implied that Joh stole away Hel–his one true love–from him and married her. Then, she ends up dying because Joh is a douche or something, and Joh can’t even appreciate what he has left from her: Freder. Rotwang notices this and it pains him even more to see how not only his lost love was treated, but also how the memory of her is treated. He builds a robot in hopes of giving it her looks, basically to bring her back from the dead and have her for himself. But when he sees how foregone Joh is, he decides to use the robot to exact his revenge instead. Seriously, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy and want to root for him. Especially since when he’s introduced, he’s the only interesting character at the time. He’s the first real big “overacting” moment in the film, and it’s glorious.
What turned me even more toward Rotwang was how I had an incredibly hard time liking Maria. She barely emotes any time you see her before she’s kidnapped. And her face is just creepy and weird. And I couldn’t believe her as this kind of peaceful revolutionary. She came off more as a creepy cult leader. In fact, the one and only time I could get behind her character was near the end when she’s trying to save the children from the flooding town (I’ll get to that in a minute, as well). That seems real to me, emotionally. And when she acted out the robot, she shifted her body and head in such weird, bizarre ways that it was very off-putting to me. And this is coming from a guy who normally really digs that kind of thing. I really don’t know what it was about that actress; I respect her for what she did in this movie (she did a ton), but I just couldn’t buy into her.
And because of all of this, when it came down to the revolution in the third act where Rotwang was having robot-Maria talk the workers into violently rebelling, I knew I was supposed to be against it… but I couldn’t. I was right there with the revolution, wanting them to hit Joh where it hurt and destroy the city and rise and gain equality and blah blah blah. Unfortunately, soon after this we have what was to me one of the stupidest moments of the film, and that’s where the entire climax lost me. There’s a moment while the workers are destroying the machines that they get to the Heart; the boss of the Machine even warns them that if they destroy it, it will flood their city and homes and destroy everything else. So these people do it anyway… and my problem comes from the fact not a single one of them–not one–bothers to think about the fact they’re about to essentially murder all of their children. I don’t care who you are, or if you’re in the heat of the moment or have a body full of adrenaline, if somebody tells you that destroying this machine is going to flood and destroy your homes, where your kids are, you’re going to probably not do it… or at least hesitate. But out of, say, a hundred parents, not one bothers to think about the fact they’re about to probably kill their kids? Especially if you think about why these people would about kill themselves over this job in the first place–to provide for their families. I just don’t buy it. And because of that, the last 20-30 minutes of the film didn’t work for me. I went along with the flood rescue stuff, but the entire raging witch hunt thing afterwards didn’t gel, etc.
On the other hand, there is a lot to really like about the movie, as well. Besides Rotwang, The Thin Man is just a fun villain. I actually wish they would have utilized him more. I understand it was the 1920s, but between his stylish, sleek look, his smooth attitude, and “I will freakin’ kill you” demeanor, it was hard not to like him. And his facial expressions near the end of the film added more depth to his character, showing he doesn’t actually agree with everything that’s going on. And outside the characters, everybody pretty much knows this film is a visual treat. That’s one of the primary reasons this film is so beloved. It was outstanding for its time, and it still amazed me today how they pulled off some of that stuff (though it got weird around the last hour with the hallucinations and the Whore of Babylon dancing all montaged together). Still, it looked great. And I really liked the aesthetic of the very beginning when you saw the workers just kind of shuffle-marching into and out of shift, and then moving around on the machines like a choreographed dance number. It was beautifully done.
Despite what you might think, I didn’t hate this movie. Yes, there are some class/societal themes I didn’t touch on here that still resonate today (but let’s be honest, you could go find hundreds of others that say the same thing, in more detail, and probably better). There was definitely a lot to like. However, there was just too much other stuff I couldn’t get behind at the same time. Like I said, for everything I liked, there seemed to be a flip side of whatever it was that gave me something negative about it. The film also feels every minute of its length, and maybe even longer considering events are sped up in this format… so even more stuff happens in the length of 2.5 hours back then than what would happen in 2.5 hours today. But if you’re a Sci-Fi fan or consider yourself any kind of film buff, I think this is one you shouldn’t pass up regardless, if only for its aesthetic, historical, and influential qualities.